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Hoop houses make fresh produce possible at winter farmers market

Monday, January 10, 2011 | 7:18 p.m. CST; updated 1:34 p.m. CST, Sunday, January 16, 2011
Rhonda Borgmeyer weighs onions at her stand on Jan. 8 at the Winter Farmers Market at Rock Bridge Christian Church.

COLUMBIA — By Saturday afternoon, Jeremy Saurage’s voice was hoarse. He had been yelling “Head lettuce! Turnips!” to customers all morning at the winter farmers market in Columbia.

“You’ve got to really yell at them to get ‘em to notice,” Saurage said. “I’ve got to sell everything, otherwise I won’t make it through the winter. This is all I do for money.”

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When the market opened at 10 a.m., the line at Saurage's stand was almost 20 feet long. Customers were waiting to buy the spinach, mixed greens and turnips he had arranged in big wicker baskets.

Saurage, a vendor at the warm-weather farmers market since 2008, agreed to continue when the cold-weather version opened Nov. 6.

For the first time this year, the market season was extended into December, January and February. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays at Rock Bridge Christian Church

Over the last five weeks, 13 vendors have set up booths to sell nuts, potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower, greens, herbs, squash, meat, baked goods, honey, jams, pasta and candles.

They are able to supply fresh produce during the winter by using greenhouses and a less expensive alternative, the hoop house.

So far, public response to the winter market seems to be positive, if not at the level of the summer market, said Manager Christine Todd.

At the height of summer, the market serves 5,000 customers a day, Todd said. The winter market is different, she said, but so far, she thinks it is going well.

“Our customer count was about 250 people last Saturday,” Todd said. “There were 13 vendors there total, and two sold out early.”

The winter market in Columbia was prompted by popular demand. Last December, a handful of vendors set up stands at Café Berlin to sell cool-season crops, homemade pasta and meat.

It was so successful that a decision was made to move to a bigger location and extend the market year-round.

The extension was made possible by a $26,000 specialty crop block grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will help fund the winter market for three years.

As farmers markets become more common across the country, many are stretching their seasons.  A total of 6,132  markets were running in the United States in 2009, according to the USDA National Farmers Market Manager survey. Since then, the USDA reports a 17 percent increase.

Columbia's market is one of almost 900 nationwide that operate through the winter.

All of the vendors selling fresh produce say they depend on greenhouses or hoop houses to let them grow out-of-season crops. Hoop houses are more affordable and easier to build than a greenhouse, and they don't always have to be heated.

At Deep Mud Farms in Auxvasse, Saurage has three hoop houses and is in the process of building a fourth. They measure 17-by-100 feet and grow a variety of produce, including parsley, spinach, turnips, carrots, and even tomatoes.

For Saurage, hoop houses are quite versatile and allow him to get an early start on cool and warm season crops, push the warm season crops into early fall and winter, and over-winter the cool season crops.

“With a hoop house I might be able to send my tomatoes out possibly at the end of March,” he said.

Rhonda Borgmeyer, of Pete’s Produce in Osage County, said she mostly grows tomatoes in her greenhouses and sold several pounds on Saturday.

Shopping the market on Saturday, regular customers Angela Ketchum and Carmen Randall said it creates a sense of community and lets them support local farmers.

“We see more friends here than at the grocery store,” Randall said, laughing.

For the past few years, supporters have been actively pushing for a permanent pavilion to house the market. 

An architect developed plans for an open-sided structure in 2000. Since then, Sustainable Farms & Communities, a nonprofit group chartered in 1998, has been working out additional details with the Columbia Farmers' Market and the city of Columbia.

So far, the group has raised $300,000 toward its $2.5 million goal, according to Casey Corbin, executive director the nonprofit group. Plans are to start construction in 2014.


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